Orphan Trains Topic Of Upcoming Program At Heritage Museum


October 8, 2018

What should a city do with thousands of abandoned and orphaned children running the streets? For 19th-century New Yorkers, the answer was the orphan train

For Tamra Wilson, of Newton, the topic has personal undertones. Researching her mother’s family, she happened upon a discovery that would explain the mystery about her maternal great-grandmother, Sarah McGuirk, an orphan train rider.

Wilson will present an illustrated talk about her research for the Transylvania Heritage Museum on Thursday, Oct. 18. The presentation, free and open to the public, begins at 3 p.m. and will be held at the College Walk Retirement Community in Brevard.

“A TV program ‘Orphan Train’ was broadcast in 1979 and it piqued my interest,” Wilson said.

The movie, guest starring Glenn Close, depicted children resettled from New York to American farm country to solve two problems: an overpopulation of abandoned children in Manhattan and a need for cheap (free) farm labor elsewhere.”

“Elsewhere” became Canada, Mexico and 45 states, including Illinois, where her great-grandmother turned up in Piatt County as a young girl with no known relatives. Sarah McGuirk McKinley was the maternal grandmother of Wilson’s mother, who lived in central Illinois.

Wilson is a long-time history buff, genealogist, writer and researcher. She is a local columnist in Newton and has published a story collection and, most recently, co-edited “Idol Talk,” an anthology about teen idols published in 2018 by McFarland & Company. She travels the state of North Carolina as a Road Scholar with the N.C. Humanities Council.

Wilson had a lot of company as an orphan train rider. For 75 years, an estimated 150,000 children were moved out of Manhattan by train. Some of the young riders were happily resettled in rural areas and adopted by loving families. Others were cruelly treated by their sponsors who used them as slave laborers. And a few returned to New York.

“Sarah died when my grandfather was 4,” Wilson said. “The family story was that Sarah was an orphan, a servant girl. Little else was known about her.”

Sarah married a Civil War veteran in 1869 and died at age 31 near Monticello, Ill.

“I suspected that Sarah was an orphan train rider, but I didn’t have enough proof other than circumstantial evidence,” Wilson said.

That proof came in the 1860 federal census, digitized and indexed a few years ago.

“I knew that the Children’s Aid Society of New York sent children to the Midwest as early as 1853,” Wilson said. “There she was on the 1860 census: Sarah McGurk (sp), living in the Juvenile Asylum in New York City, age 9.”

Listed on the orphanage census was James McGurk, her brother. Wilson has since located rare orphan train documents for both Sarah and James in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University.

For more information, contact the Transylvania Heritage Museum at (828) 884-2347.


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